The Letter of James

Background

The letter from James is probably the earliest of the Letters, written no later than 50 AD (since it does not mention the Jerusalem meeting of around 47 AD). This is believed to be the James that was Jesus’ earthly brother and not one of the original disciples. The content is relatively simple and practical, appealing to common sense.

Outline

  1. 1:1 Greeting
  2. 1:2–4 Perseverance
  3. 1:5–8 Wisdom and doubting
  4. 1:9–11 Rich and poor
  5. 1:12–16 Temptation
  6. 1:17–18 God, the source of all goodness
  7. 1:19–27 Purity and actions
  8. 2:1–8 Prejudice
  9. 2:9–13 The law
  10. 2:14–26 Faith and actions
  11. 3:1–12 Teaching and taming the tongue
  12. 3:13–18 Wisdom
  13. 4:1–6 The battle within
  14. 4:7–12 Come near to God, away from evil
  15. 4:13–17 Boasting
  16. 5:1–6 The rich
  17. 5:7–11 Patience
  18. 5:12 Oaths
  19. 5:13–18 Sickness and faith
  20. 5:19–20 Saving others from deception

1:1 Greeting

James only describes himself as a slave of God, just as Paul often did, in spite of being the half-brother of Jesus. But notice that the letter is directed at the twelve tribes of Israel, scattered among the nations. Many people advocate the theory of “lost tribes”, the remnant from when Israel and Judah were conquered. But that was long before this letter was written, and yet here is James writing to all twelve tribes. Not one hint is made about any of them being lost. However, some could take the expression as poetic license, just a way to refer to Jewish believers not living in Jerusalem. Even so, it should be noted that not one hint of any lost tribes is mentioned in the Bible. In addition, we have all twelve tribes listed in the book of Revelation concerning the distant future compared to the first century, as well as Paul’s assertion of his being able to trace his Hebrew lineage (Phil. 3 for example).

1:2–4 Perseverance

James begins by advising the people on the proper reaction to hardship. Its purpose is to refine and mold us, to make us strong and mature. That message has largely been lost today. Most believers think God only wants them to be happy and comfortable. And note the reference to “brothers and sisters”; even though this letter is addressed to “the twelve tribes” of Israel, these are also believers in Jesus.

1:5–8 Wisdom and doubting

Another issue that seems to have been forgotten today is that of asking God for wisdom. Instead we try to work for everything, but we never seem to reach the goal because we’re using our own power instead of God’s. We ask God for many things in prayer but really don’t expect an answer, and James makes it clear that such an attitude will not get us anything from God.

1:9–11 Rich and poor

In this passage and again later, James targets the issue of how we view riches and social standing. The rich should be humbled by the fleeting nature of wealth, and the poor should boast of their true and eternal riches. Many of our values in this life will be reversed in the coming kingdom.

1:12–16 Temptation

We must be careful not to take the term “award of life” as meaning salvation, or we’d have to say James is teaching salvation by works (we’ll look at that more in the next chapter). But God never tempts anyone to sin, which is an important point to remember on the topic of the sin of Adam, because some claim God put the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden to get him to sin. And Satan is not mentioned here at all, but only our own desires, along with a warning about deception.

Today it is becoming increasingly popular to blame this or that “spirit” of something for every evil thing we do or experience, such as “the spirit of lust” or even “the spirit of poverty.” Such notions come from superstition, not God. We do get tempted by the world around us, and certainly demons are involved in much of that, but the blame for falling lies solely with us. Instead of slamming the door when sin comes along, we invite it in and allow it to stay. Then it “grows up” and takes over.

1:17–18 God, the source of all goodness

In contrast to the notion that temptation comes from God, James tells us that only what is good comes from God. God never wavers or changes, which is very much in contrast to the gods of other religions such as Islam.

1:19–27 Purity and actions

We would do well to heed James’ advice here to be slow to take offense. We live in a world where everyone feels entitled to be free of offense. Even many Christians expect others to tiptoe around them and never hurt their feelings. The slightest disagreement is taken as offense and hostility. We are to be sensitive and considerate, but that does not mean the hypersensitive can demand never to be challenged.

James advises people to be self-controlled and patient. And we must go beyond merely hearing the Word to also practice it. We must choose daily to keep focused on Jesus and the truth of the gospel, and the sound teachings of the Bible. A good sign that we are practicing the teachings is how well we control our tongues, a topic James will elaborate on later.

A religion that is clean and pure is of no credit to us without standing the test: staying clean in spite of our contacts with the world. There is no reward for being clean if we never venture out into the world. A monastic life is largely an untested and concealed life; it is of much more value to be found clean if one is out where there is dirt.

2:1–8 Prejudice

James appeals to the people’s own experience to question why they would fawn over the rich and despise the poor. He states in no uncertain terms that it is a crime to favor the very class of people that do the most harm to the faith; it favors the enemy and disgraces the name of Jesus and his people, who are often found among the poor.

In spite of this passage being familiar to most believers, it is rarely followed. Favoritism is alive and well in the churches. The unbiblical clergy class is favored over the so-called laity, men are favored over women, and the rich are courted for their financial support, even though it is these people who do the church the most damage. Favoritism is a violation of the “royal law” to love your neighbor as yourself.

2:9–13 The law

If one part of the law is violated, the whole thing is violated. So nobody can claim to be better than anyone else since everyone violates the law. And when it comes to judgment, God will judge us with the same standard we used on others. If we want God to go easy on us, then we’d better do the same for other people in this life (see also Mt. 7:2).

2:14–26 Faith and actions

Now to the “faith and works” passage, one which has vexed Bible students for ages. Many believe it to be at odds with the teachings of Paul, who said in Romans 4 that Abraham was made righteous (or “just”) by faith alone, in contrast to the earning of a wage.

First of all, remember that this letter was written before Paul’s letters (with the remotely possible exception of Galatians), which contain a much more developed theology. Second, James is speaking of a dead faith, not a non-existent one. If a person dies, does it mean they never existed? Of course not, and neither is a person without works necessarily one who was never born again spiritually. Third, this whole letter is about practical, everyday Christianity. Just as James was amazed that people were fawning over the rich who were exploiting them, he is also amazed at people who claim salvation but never show it.

In vs. 14–20 James is talking about the uselessness of a faith no one can see in action, not that such inaction proves a complete absence of faith. He asks how anyone can know you have such faith if they can’t see it. People are not like God who sees the heart; we have nothing else to go on but actions and words. So James is building a case against those who have made the claim but never displayed the faith, to ask them why anyone should believe them.

But what about Abraham? James says that Abraham was declared righteous by offering Isaac on an altar, doesn’t he? But note the pivotal phrase, “And that fulfilled the scripture that says ’Abraham believed God…’ ” In other words, what Abraham would later do was determined beforehand by his faith. The scripture about when Abraham was declared righteous by God is the belief, and the offering of Isaac is the result of the test. So James is not contradicting Paul at all. But the thrust of his argument is that Abraham was declared righteous for us to see when his faith took action. Otherwise James would not only be contradicting Paul but also himself, because he said “Abraham believed… and was credited with righteousness” and that a person is justified by actions. Which is it?

The answer of course is that God sees our faith, but we can only see actions. After all, God really didn’t need to see Abraham’s actions in order to know if Abraham had faith, yet “the Angel of the Master” said “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Gen. 22:12b)

There is a popular phrase, “Faith without works is alone, but faith that works is never alone.” Those who say this demand proof by works that a person has faith, or they call them unbelievers. But that’s something only God can know; it is not anyone else’s place to judge. We can only see actions, and there are times that actions force us to expel someone from our fellowship. But we dare not call them lost without asking first what they believe.

Again, James is imploring people to put their faith into practice, not writing a thesis on salvation. And those who insist on works for salvation cannot agree where the line is drawn. Exactly what and how many works are required, and where does the Bible say this? Instead, we see the same line of reasoning Paul used about the difference between spiritual infants and mature adults, between the spiritually immature and true disciples.

A dead person exists but is useless; likewise, a dead faith exists but is useless. We are not to be content with just being born, but to be useful to God and the other believers.

3:1–12 Teaching and taming the tongue

Now to the subject of Bible teachers. Anyone who is in a position of teaching is held to a higher standard since they are responsible for the spiritual nurturing and protection of others. If all Sunday School teachers and preachers would take this seriously, how many would be left? Did God ever intend for any warm body who can read a “teacher’s guide” to be given a teaching position? As Paul wrote, the standards for teachers and Elders are very high, and God will hold them responsible.

I don’t think there is necessarily a break to a different subject in verse two, which begins the passage on the tongue. James just wrote about teachers and how careful they have to be in what they say. Like the rudder of a ship, the tongue can control “the whole body”, which can refer to the Body of believers. Great damage can be done by false or inept teachers. Of course the section can apply to every individual believer as well, but there is a strong possibility that James may have had teachers in mind when he wrote this part.

3:13–18 Wisdom

Back again to general Christian behavior, about putting our faith in action. If we do this we won’t have the squabbles and conflicts typical of churches throughout history. The hierarchal structure of “churchianity” fosters the jealousy and selfish ambition James writes about here. And if it was a problem in James’ time, before this structure set in, then we can understand why it is so much greater a problem now.

4:1–6 The battle within

What causes those battles and struggles? The same “self” that James wrote about earlier, that tempts us to sin. We crave a lot of things, and even try to fool ourselves that some of them are not desires but needs that God owes us. We are allowed to enjoy the fruit of our labor, but we must not forget the poor. How often do we ask for the means to help them? And we must remember how God views human pride. Just as he will speak of a different kind of resistance on our part, James first speaks of God’s resistance to the arrogant. They may succeed in this life, but God will be their judge in the next.

4:7–12 Come near to God, away from evil

This time James offers a strategy for standing firm: resist! Most of our sin is simply due to our not even putting up a fight. But if we stand against the Tempter he will run away in fear. But does this conflict with James’ earlier statement that temptation comes from within? No, because he never said all temptation was from ourselves. We do have an external Enemy, but one that cannot prevail against a strong defense. The pride of self is no match for him, but if we humble ourselves to God instead of being self-sufficient and arrogant, we can’t lose.

Bringing down the idol of Self can be painful, but it must be done if we are to conquer sin and stand against temptation. We must also stop watching others like a hawk to see if they fall so we can “shoot our wounded.” People gossip and backstab and cut each other down continually, or they go to the other extreme and pretend not to see error or sin or heresy.

Here is an instance of “do not judge”, and like the others, it’s typically taken out of context. James has been talking about people tearing each other down, and it is this kind of judging that is wrong. And the people doing this, instead of judging themselves compared to God’s standards, judge themselves by their own standards. They are very much like the Pharisees.

4:13–17 Boasting

Pride is the root of boasting. From our own limited perspective we think that our lives are long and important. But we are in fact mere vapors, fleeting moments in time. As Paul has said, anyone who brags should only brag about the Master. To know all of these things, and ignore them or fail to act, is every bit as much a sin against God as the commission of evil acts.

5:1–6 The rich

Do you get the impression that James was a little upset with the rich? Like many employers today, they were exploiting workers— and he’s addressing believers. Many employers have gone to church each Sunday but lived like the devil all week, saying “Business is business.” And again, these were the types of people who gave the believers most of their trouble.

5:7–11 Patience

Abruptly James shifts focus to the exploited now, asking them to be patient. We hold out the hope of the Master’s return as our power to endure. Sadly, just when we need it most, this hope has been all but abandoned by the churches today. They have decided that prophecies are just stories about good and evil, and they mock those who still believe the Master will return for us. After another quick jab at the judgmental ones, James gives examples of patience from the past, the hated and persecuted prophets of old.

5:12 Oaths

Next is a statement that we must be careful not to misunderstand: do not take oaths. But like the same issue when Jesus was speaking about the Pharisees (Mt. 5), who were using legal loopholes to get out of keeping their oaths, James is only saying we should be people of our word. We should not be trying to see what we can get away with but how holy and faithful we can be.

5:13–18 Sickness and faith

This passage is not a magic formula whereby we can practically order God to heal someone. There is nothing magical about oil used to anoint anyone. But notice whose faith it is that can heal the sick person: the Elders who are praying over them. Most so-called faith healers blame the sick person for not having enough faith to get better, but the Bible clearly lays the blame at the feet of the ones doing the praying and anointing. The prayers of the proud and fake cannot heal, but those of the righteous can.

There are some commentators who believe that James has a specific kind of sickness in mind here, meaning the sickness was caused by sin. But we don’t have enough in the context to say for sure.

5:19–20 Saving others from deception

James ends the letter with an encouraging note: that it is a great honor and blessing to bring people back from sin and deception. This of course stands in stark contrast to the “shooting our wounded” we usually see.